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Evaluating Riyad Mahrez’s Role with Manchester City

The Algerian’s place in the team has been brought into question recently.

Manchester City v Burnley - FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Riyad Mahrez has not appeared in Manchester City’s past three Premier League matches. This has led many in the media to speculate if he has found himself in Pep Guardiola’s doghouse, similar to the situation Leroy Sane experienced earlier in the season.

Though you may believe that Mahrez’s recent relegation to the bench has been blown out of proportion by the media, it is still worth evaluating his success with City now that we have more than half a season to look at since his transfer from Leicester City last summer.

Mahrez certainly has shown flashes of brilliance in a sky blue kit, sparking a legitimate conversation earlier in the year on whether City were better with him or Leroy Sane in the starting lineup. However, that debate has shifted heavily into Sane’s favor recently, among both fans and the coaching staff.

Granted, the primary reason for this has been because Sane has been a force of nature over the past month, but potential signs of Mahrez struggling to assimilate into the squad are also evident. The Algerian has been far from poor, but it’s clear the flow of the attack changes with him on the pitch and his influence is likely less than most expected.

So why has a player of Mahrez’s caliber been unable to make more of a mark on this Manchester City squad?

The FA Cup match against Burnley on Sunday highlighted two interconnected (and hopefully fixable) reasons: a lack of urgency and versatility .

When Mahrez is off the ball, he has a tendency to stand around instead of making runs in behind or into the interior of the defense. Furthermore, he doesn’t show an urgency to get into shooting zones when the attack has unlocked the opposition defense and the final ball is about to be played. Oddly enough, this habit of his was prominent on two of City’s goal against Burnley.

The second goal of the match developed from chaos in the midfield that led to an opportunity to break at a compromised backline.

Mahrez, not far behind Gundogan when he picks up the ball just inside Burnley’s half, makes no attempt to join the rush. He fails to get to anything more than a jog, when he should have been sprinting from the moment Gundogan turned. He had a similar reaction for the Kevin Long own goal, City’s fourth goal of the match, which developed down the right wing.

What you’ll notice about Mahrez in the play here is that, well, he’s not even close to being in it. Mahrez (on the left wing) doesn’t even enter the box until De Bruyne has played the ball across when he should be making the far post or cutback run. He could increase his production so much by simply increasing his work rate.

This aspect of Mahrez’s game also ties directly into how he is used by Pep Guardiola. For most of the season, he has been attached to the right touchline. However, he primarily operated on the left wing against Burnley, though his approach was unaffected by this. He strongly prefers to pick up the ball in wide positions, often at a standstill, with the entire defense in view. From there, Mahrez relies on his remarkable technical skill to open up small pockets of space to slip past defenders or fire a ball into the box.

The play shown above is a common course of action and creating space while tightly defended certainly brings tremendous value to the club. His success with City has been founded on being able to feint defenders and get to his strong left foot for a shot/cross. But that ability to operate in tight spaces has not translated to any other zones on the pitch aside from the wing. Meanwhile, the other wingers on the team have shown a willingness and comfort playing internally while Mahrez has yet to do so.

His reliance on this style of play can be a hindrance on a team that emphasizes flexibility and interchanging above all else. The primary reason why Bernardo Silva was positioned on the right wing against Burnley was because of his ability to play on the inside channel, thus allowing City to implement a structure with Kyle Walker pushing forward and Kevin De Bruyne sitting in behind as a deep-lying playmaker that has been so successful recently. The presence of Mahrez over there would simply congest this set up.

Manchester City v Burnley - FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

It appears Riyad Mahrez may still be adjusting to his new team and hasn’t fully adapted to the style of play Pep Guardiola implements just yet. According to statistics provided by UnderStat, the numbers also bear this out. In the ten Premier League matches that Mahrez has started, Manchester City have achieved 1.48 expected goal differential per match (xGD/90), fueled by 2.205 xG/90. However, in the remaining league matches, the Blues have performed better, outputting 2.16 xGD/90 and 3.03 xG/90. This isn’t a perfect assessment given the fact that Mahrez has been a substitute in many of those matches, but the significant difference is alarming.

All of this isn’t to say that Mahrez hasn’t been a good addition to the team but we know he is capable of more. He is an incredibly talented player who looks dangerous quite often and this article should not overshadow the value he brings to Manchester City. This is still a player with 9 goals and 6 assists this season in all competitions, with 2 goals and 4 assists in his last four matches alone. Moreover, he’s only played 30 matches with City so this transitional period should be expected.

The promising aspect of the criticisms I have presented here is that there is a clear avenue to become more effective. Pep Guardiola will put him in unfamiliar situations, such as playing left wing, that will force him to improve in other areas. We have already seen him do this with a variety of players such as Benjamin Mendy and Leroy Sane.

The big question that remains is whether or not we will ever see the Player of the Year level Riyad Mahrez during his time with City. It may be possible he is more suited to play in Claudio Ranieri’s system as opposed to Guardiola’s. It is also harder to stand out the way he did at Leicester City when you’re surrounded by world class players. Predicting what the future holds for Mahrez in a sky blue kit is a difficult task, but he has all the resources at his disposal to be even more than what he’s showed us so far.